Notes on Polygamy

detail of “Bathsheba” by Hayez

There’s something irresistible about the endnotes of a good book. In the course of an argument, one comes to trust a writer’s judgments and his judiciousness about sources—precursors, precedents, and pathfinders. So a favorable mention of an author or book in an endnote or an annotated bibliography provides further lines of exploration of the topic at hand, often yielding a genealogy of sound thought.

Upon completing David Bentley Hart’s Experience of God, I eagerly dove into his “Bibliographical Postscript” and ended up noting more than a dozen books that begged for attention or scrutiny. If Hart recommends a book, how could I resist? Indeed, based on his glowing recommendation (“one of the most compelling and beautiful descriptions of seeing reality as it truly is”), I have already devoured Thomas Traherne’s Centuries, and I found that it equaled, if not exceeded, the level of Hart’s praise. And, while I am not even 80 pages into Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World—an even more majestic and affirming book than Hart’s—I’ve already racked up more than a dozen books from his finely pointed footnotes. The experience of reading is nothing if not intertextual: the ubiquitous hyperlink of HTML only made them more immediate.

Almost as often as these sources enlighten, they also have the potential to baffle or bewilder, complicating my lingering impressions of the writer who sent me off in this or that direction. Most recently, Jenny Davidson’s Reading Style: A Life in Sentences includes a long quotation from Gary Lutz’s short story “Waking Hours.” I was so taken with the sentences she quotes that I put down her book and looked up several stories by Lutz that were available online, only to discover that few of his other sentences, let alone complete works, rendered anything resembling that initial hit. Disappointed, I wondered what this said about Ms. Davidson. How could she have mislead me so? Should I even press on with her book, having become aware of this gap between recommendation and reality? Fortunately, I had spent little time and no money on either her book or my follow-up, so the opportunity costs, as an economist would say, were low.

Sometimes I am not so lucky, and I am pulled down into a rabbit hole. Such is the case with Timothy Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the co-founder of the Gospel Coalition. In several of his books, he makes the excellent, if under-appreciated, point that the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of polygamy, prostitution, and primogeniture subverts these ancient practices rather than condones them—a mistake (or a persistent obtuseness) often repeated by progressives or modernizers. Much to my surprise and delight, Keller cites a favorite scholar and commentator, Robert Alter, in support of his argument.

Here’s one version of the argument, which I find quite compelling:

Many years ago, when I first started reading the Book of Genesis, it was very upsetting to me. Here are all these spiritual heroes—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—and look at how they treat women. . . . They engage in polygamy, and they buy and sell their wives. It was awful to read their stories at times. But then I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter is a Jewish scholar at Berkeley whose expertise is ancient Jewish literature. In his book he says there are two institutions present in the Book of Genesis that were universal in ancient cultures: polygamy and primogeniture. Polygamy said a husband could have multiple wives, and primogeniture said the oldest son got everything—all the power, all the money. In other words, the oldest son basically ruled over everyone else in the family. Alter points out that when you read the Book of Genesis, you’ll see two things. First of all, in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. Second, when it comes to primogeniture, in every generation God favors the younger son over the older. He favors Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Alter says that you begin to realize what the Book of Genesis is doing—it is subverting, not supporting, those ancient institutions at every turn.

When I read Alter’s book, I then reread the Book of Genesis and loved it. And then it hit me: What if when I was younger, I had abandoned my trust in the Bible because of these accounts in Genesis? What if I had drop-kicked the Bible and the Christian faith, missing out on a personal relationship with Christ—all because I couldn’t understand the behavior of the patriarchs? The lesson is simple: Be patient with the text. Consider the possibility that it might not be teaching what you think it’s teaching.

This passage is found in an excellent sermon by Keller from November 5, 2006, on literalism (around minute 17). An edited transcription of the sermon can be found here. Variations of this argument appear in Keller’s later work. For instance, in his 2011 book The Meaning of Marriage, he makes a related observation to embarrass the inability of some contemporary commentators, such as Jennifer Knust in her book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, to see the overarching moral implications of the story. Keller writes, “To say that Genesis condones prostitution, or polygamy for that matter—when the prostitution and polygamy in the narrative bring untold misery to all participants—shows, I think, an elementary failure to learn how to read narrative. . . . Strangely, Knust doesn’t give readers much hint of [mountains of scholarship opposed to her reading], and even in places (like her Genesis 38 interpretation) where almost the entire body of scholarship, from liberal to conservative, is against her, she offers not even a footnote to mention it. I find this to be the case with most all the speakers, books, and articles assailing the Bible’s wisdom on sexuality” (247, n. 7).

Surely we can join Keller in the rebuff of such tone-deaf scholarship. He’s exactly on point. The only trouble is: I’ve never been able to locate any of these arguments in Robert Alter’s work as pointedly as Keller renders them. So what gives?


Here’s what I did find. In the revised edition of The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 2011), Alter writes about the pastoral motif of a betrothal after the drawing of water, as represented in Genesis 24:10-61 and 29:1-20. The motif recurs with variation in 1 Samuel 9:11-12 for Saul and practically the whole book of Ruth. But, where one might also expect it the account of David’s royal lineage, it is absent. He explains:

The case of David, who has rather complicated relations with at least three of his wives, may be an ambiguous [ploy of characterization and thematic argument], for perhaps the author, working closely with observed historical data about David, did not feel free to impose the stylization of a betrothal type-scene when he knew the circumstances of David’s marriages to have been otherwise. Be that as it may, we might note that the three discriminated premarital episodes in the David cycle all involve bloodshed, in an ascending order of moral questionability: the two hundred Philistines he slaughters in battle as the bride-price for Michal; his threat to kill Nabal, Abigail’s husband, who then conveniently dies of shock; and his murder of the innocent Uriah after having committed adultery with Bathsheba. Are these betrothals by violence a deliberate counterpoint to the pastoral motif? Perhaps, though from this distance in time is hard to be sure. (73-74)

This passage in Alter’s book is the closest I can find to Keller’s general point. The kernel of the argument is there, but it hasn’t quite been teased out to the full extent that Keller uses it. And, while Alter mentions numerous reversals of primogeniture in the Bible, he doesn’t spell out an explicit intention of the biblical author to subvert these ancient customs or practices.

That said, more than any other critic I know of Alter is keenly attuned to the nuances of personality that stand over and above the literary tropes of the ancient near east. In the introduction to The Five Books of Moses, he writes, “Nowhere else in ancient literature have the quirkiness and unpredictability of individual character and the frictions and tensions of family life—sibling rivalry, the jealousy of co-wives, the extravagance of parental favoritism—been registered with such subtlety and insight. . . . [T]he literary miracle of the stories is that the chief personages are nevertheless imagined with remarkable integrity and complexity as individual characters” (xii). Is it possible that Keller is simply overreading Alter’s particular sensitivity to these features of the biblical narrative and attributing to Alter his own interpolations into Alter’s text? Medieval commentators could be accused of far worse.

Another possibility here is that Keller has merely distilled a distinctly Alterian viewpoint from several of Alter’s works. There are three places in Genesis where Alter discusses primogeniture and its reversal, but none adds up exactly to Keller’s point. Commenting on the birth of Esau and Jacob in Genesis 25:24-34, Alter observes: “The grabbing of the heel by the younger twin becomes a kind of emblem of their future relationship, and the birth, like the oracle, again invokes the struggle against primogeniture” (130). This is set against Esau’s sale of his birthright:

Each of Jacob’s words, in striking contrast to Esau’s imperious speech, is carefully weighed and positioned, with “me” held back until the end of the sentence. If Esau seems too much a creature of the imperious body to deserve the birthright, the dialogue suggests at the same time that Jacob is a man of legalistic calculation. Perhaps this is a quality needed to get and hold onto the birthright, but it hardly makes Jacob sympathetic, and moral ambiguities will pursue him in the story. (130-131)

Later, commenting on Genesis 38:7, about Judah and Onan, he writes: “The nature of [Er’s] moral failing remains unspecified, but given the insistent pattern of reversal of primogeniture in all these stories, it seems almost sufficient merely to be firstborn in order to incur God’s displeasure: though the firstborn is not necessarily evil, he usually turns out to be obtuse, rash, wild, or otherwise disqualified from carrying on the heritage” (215). The theme of the firstborn and the anxiety of his status is well established. Any careful reader of the Bible shouldn’t fail to notice it.

Still, this assortment of comments over many years do not add up to Keller’s original quotation in all of its forcefulness and clarity. The thrust of the argument is certainly something Alter suggests in the course of discussing Jacob and his four wives, Jacob and Esau, and David and his older brothers. But it’s certainly not direct, perhaps merely prompted or inspired by Alter’s work.

My point is not to highlight a failing on Keller’s part to document a specific, original source for his inspiration (although folks may want to stop repeating the unmoored quotation). It is rather to highlight the fact that sometimes a text inspires connections and insights that are not strictly found on the page in front of us. In my own case, since I am an admirer of both men, the original reference prompted a vain search for a one-to-one correspondence. The real interplay took place off the page, in between Keller’s reading of Alter’s seminal work and his later remembrance of that initial encounter, which became broader and more coherent than the original source. How wonderful to locate the way that our reading continues to unfold and develop long after we have closed a book—and, indeed, how like our own encounter with the God of the Bible.


Since my own reading of Keller’s passage, I have discovered, unsurprisingly, that many other commentators have made similar observations about polygamy and the unseemly conduct of Israel’s leading men. Nathan Bierma has an excellent short article on “Old Testament polygamy and the sanctity of marriage,” which can be found here. An even more sweeping analysis can be found in God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation by Andreas Köstenberger and David W. Jones (Crossway, 2004):

While it is evident that some very important individuals (both reportedly godly and ungodly) in the history of Israel engaged in polygamy, the Old Testament clearly communicates that the practice of having multiple wives was a departure from God’s plan for marriage. This is conveyed not only in Scripture verses that seem univocally to prohibit polygamy (cf. Deut. 17:17; Lev. 18:18), but also from the sin and general disorder that polygamy produced in the lives of those who engaged in the practice. For example, the Old Testament reports disruptive favoritism in the polygamous marriages of Jacob (Gen. 29:30), Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:4-5), and Rehoboam (2 Chron. 11:21). In addition, jealousy was a recurrent problem between the competing wives of Abraham (Gen. 21:9-10), Jacob (Gen. 30:14-16), and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:6). Moreover, Scripture reports that Solomon’s foreign “wives turn away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4), a violation of the first commandment, and David’s multiple marriages let to incest and murder among his progeny.

In short, the Bible is clear that individuals in the history of Israel who abandoned God’s design of monogamy and participated in polygamy did so contrary to the Creator’s plan and ultimately to their own detriment. . . . Not only is polygamy nowhere in the Old Testament spoken of with approval (though cf. Ex. 21:10-11; Deut. 21:15-17), many passages clearly uphold monogamy as the continuing ideal (e.g., Prov. 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-312; Ps. 128:3; Ezek. 16:8).

This interpretation forges a distinctly and coherently biblical perspective on the multitude of sexual sins depicted in the Hebrew Bible. And, once seen in this light, it also strikes me as patently obvious. God calls people to Him in spite of—and sometimes even through—their brokenness. But that does not, in any way, condone the commission of those sins.

I am still not sure what to make of primogeniture and the priority of the firstborn. Poking around on Google Books, I found the following entry for the role and theology of the firstborn in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck (Eerdmans):

The stories of Abel and Cain, Jacob and Esau, Joseph (Judah) and Reuben, Ephraim and Manasseh (Moses and Aaron, David and his brothers, Solomon and Adonijah) have some bearing on the subject and usually refer to a direct or indirect intervention of God. It is not unlikely that the patriarchal narratives want to describe a time in which the firstborn (frequently) enjoyed no privileged position. . . . In their present form, these narratives are written for an audience which considers the laws of the firstborn to have full weight, and which, therefore, is fully aware of the tension between sacred history and present responsibility. . . . From the diverse ideas and customs concerning the first born which were present in the cultures around Israel (and in the beginning probably also in Israel), the OT shoose that of the privileged position of the firstborn in the law and in the ritual of daily life in preference to the principle of equal prospects for the great lines of history. This principle makes possible a historical presentation of the early period when (in a very natural way) there was no permanent position of leadership or privilege of one tribe over another. This makes it possible for the narrative to bestow on Israel, which was still in the process of being constituted and which was the youngest of the nations, the title of firstborn: ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son’ (Ex. 4:22; echoed in Jer. 31:8f.). When Jeremiah speaks of the holiness of Israel and of the protection which God gives to his people, in the final analysis he bases this on the idea (again, contrary to all historical reality) that Israel is the first (re’shith, RSV ‘firstfruits’) of Yahweh’s harvest (Jer. 2:3), and therefore belongs to him and to him alone.

This theme seems to be much more complicated, much more nuanced, than Keller suggests. Some of the differences may be chalked up to the differences between the cultural and religious contexts of early and late biblical writings. How they relate to each other is less clear. Suffice to say, birth order, unlike sexual behavior, lies outside our control, foreordained by God. Perhaps at the level of metaphor both perspectives are correct within their own contexts—or perhaps each perspective holds the other in active tension, much the same way, as Robert Alter has suggested, that cubist painting works. Through these complications of interpretation, perhaps we can simply affirm Keller’s central point: people are to serve God alone, not man-made institutions or accidents of birth.

My explorations of these references, in the end, lead me not to dead-ends, or to head-scratching frustration, but rather to a deeper appreciation of the wonderful layering and incomparable richness of God’s Word.

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One thought on “Notes on Polygamy

  1. Thanks for doing the careful work of trying to track down Alter’s point that Keller repeatedly references. Sermons usually don’t come with careful footnotes or citations. As I glean points new to me from Keller I often try to track down the source and if possible the citation. I often find even if as in this case you’re hunted down Keller’s point is more assertion that citation. There are times as in this case that he may be accused of overreaching. Should sermons have a tighter or a loser standard than print media? Polygamy is of course an interesting test case given our cultural abhorrence of the institution. We really want to safeguard God’s reputation from it.

    Anyway, thanks for your finely crafted words and your careful scholarship on this. pvk

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